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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Court Won’t Enjoin Gov. Pawlenty’s Appointments

(CN) - The 8th Circuit recommended dismissing a lawsuit that claims Minnesota officials have misused judicial resignations and appointments for 10 years to avoid having an election for the chief justice seat on the state Supreme Court.

A Minnesota voter and two prospective chief justice candidates are barred from taking their claims to Minnesota federal court because of jurisdiction limits, the St. Louis-based court found.

Jill Clark and Gregory Wersal had intended to run for chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court in a November 2010 election that never occurred.

They say there hasn't been an election for the seat of chief justice in 10 years.

The judges and Heather Robins filed suit against Minnesota Gov. Timothy Pawlenty and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who they say have misused resignations and appointments to delay and prevent judicial elections, in violation of both the Minnesota and U.S. Constitutions.

The trio sought to prevent the governor from making future judicial appointments, but a federal judge declined to issue an injunction and suggested that it may lack jurisdiction.

Former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz's election to a six-year term in 2000 set off the cycle of cronyism in the Minnesota judiciary, according to the plaintiffs' complaint. Instead of running for re-election in 2006, Blatz resigned. Pawlenty filled the seat with the appointment of then-Associate Justice Russell Anderson, who in turn resigned before he had to run for re-election in 2008.

Pawlenty's next chief justice appointment, Eric Magnuson, was to run for election in November 2010, but his resignation took effect at the end of June 2010.

The governor appointed then-Associate Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea to fill the seat.

"Robins alleges this series of resignations and appointments is 'more than coincidence, and that the governor has engaged in a systematic overuse of the appointment process ... to appoint his friends and colleagues ... at the expense of the public's right to vote for chief justice,'" the ruling states.

A three-judge panel ordered the District Court on Jan. 26 to dismiss the plaintiffs' challenges, which they said were "essentially an appeal from a state-court judgment by an aggrieved party."

The ruling states that the Minnesota District Court's original ruling to deny an injunction overstepped jurisdiction since the Minnesota Supreme Court had found judicial elections are not required by state law.

"According to the [U.S.] Supreme Court ... district courts have no authority to review state court decisions, 'even if those challenges allege that the state court's action was unconstitutional," Judge Kermit Bye wrote for the court. "Therefore, the claims involved here, even if only a challenge to the constitutionality of the state-court's decision, are an attempt to appeal the Minnesota Supreme Court's decisions ... to a federal district court."

Bye wrote a separate opinion finding that jurisdiction also barred the claim as to the state's mandatory retirement age for judges, whereas the other two judges on the panel said the claims were barred by inadequate standing.

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